Let’s review where we are in our story of the founding of Methodism in America. So far, we’ve learned of the emergence of Pietism in Europe and seen it make its way to the shore of America in people like Martin Boehm, the Mennonite preacher, and Philip William Otterbein, the German Reformed preacher who would both eventually become the founders of one branch of what became United Methodism. We’ve witnessed the emergence of the Great Awakening in the 1740s under the ministry of itinerant preachers such as George Whitefield, an Oxford-era friend of the Wesleys. We’ve met highly devoted lay men and women in New York City and Baltimore named Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, Captain Thomas Webb, and Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge, all of whom were influenced by and then started their own Methodist class meetings.
By these many “Pietist-rooted” initiatives, the Methodist folk (Wesleyan and United Brethren) female and male, black and white, English- and German-speaking, in new community after new community laid foundations on which later Methodist preachers would build.
The Emburys and Hecks did so more than once. They soon moved from New York City on into upper New York and then into what is now Ontario, there to participate in constituting Canadian Methodism.
Such “spontaneous” beginnings exhibited the imperatives of Wesleyan Methodism … missionary drive, cross-denominational appeal, enthusiastic preaching, and household recruitment of followers. Such efforts brought individuals into face-to-face, family-like communities, but families without established “heads,” without formal structure, with little literature other than the Bible, with little purpose beyond themselves, connected to no larger ecclesial authorities, lacking clarity about norms, ritual, belief, and practices. These families of faith, in short, lacked legitimacy.
These small beginnings began the process by which spontaneous efforts “found” the authority of John Wesley and the British movement. Such communities might cry out for a leader “of wisdom, of sound faith, and a good disciplinarian” only to find themselves yielding grudgingly the family-like atmosphere that informality had afforded to something more structured.
Thus, the ordering of spontaneous Pietist communities into full-fledged Wesleyan Methodism would not be without conflict.
So far, our story has brought us up to the late 1760s. As I wrote earlier, all this formative Methodist activity was taking place amidst the backdrop of the increasingly brittle politics of the American colonies and Great Britain. That tension will soon explode into the American Revolutionary War, right about the same time the fledging Methodist faith communities are reaching out to John Wesley in England for spiritual help. The background politics and the emergence of fledgling Wesleyan Methodism will not stay in separate realms much longer.
Next time, we’ll look at how Mr. Wesley responded to the pleas from Methodists in America for help.
(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)